The Genre Dance

Written by Donna


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April 25, 2013

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold

I’ve been reading Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sidelines of late.  Sidelines is a collection of essays, speeches, travelogues, and sundry other non-fiction bits and pieces, and it completely deserves and shall have its own review.  However, as I was reading the text of a speech Bujold gave at the 2008 World Science Fiction Convention (Denvention 3), I remembered this half-written piece I started, oh, months ago, in response to a review I read of Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance that dealt with the book as a romance.  That review (you can read it here) really bugged the crap out of me, although I couldn’t figure out why until I realized that the reviewer was cherry-picking the bits out of CVA that dealt with Ivan’s romance and pretty much giving short shift to the fact that while that book, and many of the Vorkosiverse books, do contain romances for the characters, they do not fall within the boundaries of a romance as it is traditionally defined.

Captain Vorpatril's Alliance

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

Now I’m not someone who thinks genre is a dirty word—all books are genre books to some extent, and thinking about the ways that a particular book falls within the boundaries of a particular genre doesn’t bother me—you’ll note that our tags in this page usually place a book within some sort of  category: mystery, romance, SFF, biography, etc.  Genre is a handy label that gives the reader an idea of what to expect—certain tropes are common and various elements are expected in certain genres.  So if I were asked, for example, “Tell me about Moby-Dick”, I could say “It’s about this insane sea captain who seeks revenge on a whale” and that tells you what the story is about, sure, but it doesn’t tell you much about how the story is told—but if I say “It’s an adventure novel about an insane sea captain who seeks revenge on a whale”, well.  That gives you a much better idea of what you’re in for.  By the same token, I could say “It’s the classic novel about…blah blah blah” and that suggests something completely different in terms of expectations.  As Mark Twain once noted, “A classic is something everybody wants to have read, but no one wants to read.”  Most people hear the word classic and their mind goes straight to dull.  Or possibly old-fashioned. Or even good for you.  No one likes literary spinach.

Genre labels have expectations.   It’s then up to the story to meet those expectations, fail to do so, surpass them, or turn them on their heads.  But I think in the above example you can see the danger in them as well.  Useful as the label is, it’s also possible to use them to mislead.  If I really wanted to push Moby-Dick like a crack dealer on an unsuspecting reader, for example, I’d avoid labeling it a “classic” and stick with “adventure story”.  Science Fiction comes with its own issues as a label (which Bujold hilariously details in an essay later in Sidelines where she describes being the only SF author at a book fair and soliciting opinions about why the people there didn’t like the genre.  The answers range from “it’s too hard” to “I only read important books”).  You see the problem with labels… because oh those pesky pre-conceived notions.

Me, I don’t think it’s any crime to like genre books and read them. I don’t think they’re unimportant–in fact, I think they are undervalued as a whole by critics.  Are some of them fluff?  Oh sure. Some of them have no heft to them whatsoever.  I’ve also read some “important” books in my time that are fluffy, or overwritten, or just plain stupid.  That’s not a genre issue, that’s a writer issue.  Genre does not equal bad, or lacking value.  Genre does not deserve to be looked down upon like a hairball the cat left on your new rug.  Poop on that.  Want to read a fluffy cat mystery?  Do it.  Fluff is sometimes exactly what someone needs.  I don’t know about you, but sometimes I don’t want to think too hard about what I’m reading.  I just want to read it.  It’s to escape, not to improve my mind. I compared this need once to the difference between fast food and fine dining.  Sometimes you just want a Happy Meal to fill you up.  You don’t really care if there’s actually any beef in your cheeseburger.  Happily, though, there are just as many substantial books that do have some heft to them.  So if you want that, you can have it.  If you don’t, you don’t have to.  That’s the great thing about our world.  There are so many books, bless ‘em.  Something for every need and occasion.

A Civil Campaign

A Civil Campaign

So having established that, let me get back to this idea of genre and cherry-picking.  And Bujold.  Since it was her speech at Denvention 3 that got me revved up on this topic again, I shall use her as an example: if you say to me “What is A Civil Campaign about?” well good grief.  It’s about a lot of things.  It certainly is about romance, and I’m confident that folks who are romance fans will not go away dissatisfied in that respect.  But. It has to be understood that while you can read A Civil Campaign strictly as a romance novel, if you have no prior knowledge of Miles or Ekaterin, or of Kareen and Mark, and have no interest in the Vor caste, or in the complex world Bujold spent 8 previous novels building, you will have merely skimmed the surface of what is, in my opinion, not only a great novel, but a great series.  And you will not understand the nuances of the Miles/Ekaterin romance if you do not understand the world they live in.  Rather than a romance for all time, it becomes just another romance.  And it’s way more than that.

I’m glad to see people recommending Bujold to readers who may not have much experience with SFF, mind you.  I think she makes a great bridge between the romance and science fiction genres in those of her novels where the romance elements are more pronounced. And I want to be clear that I don’t think the author of the original post was trying to pull some kind of fast one on their readers.  But this kind of unintentional thoughtlessness bugs me.  It’s sloppy thinking and it can, as demonstrated above, be misleading.  To treat Bujold strictly as a romance writer is dicey at best because the Vorkosigan books are space opera–character-driven science fiction adventures.  Sure, some of those adventures include some romance now and then, but.  It’s essential to make note of how the science fiction elements influence the romances: how the Vor culture dictates how Miles acts and Ekaterin responds, or how Kareen feels trapped by societal expectations for her gender, or how Donna Vorrutyer has to take a drastic step in redefining herself in order to circumvent tradition and what effect that has on her romantic future.  You couldn’t take these people out of their world and plunk them down in Regency England or midland America and expect their romances to work because their behavior is conditioned by the culture Bujold creates (likewise, taking Regency characters and parking them on Barrayar?  No—for exactly the same reason.)  I’m trying to say—and probably making a hash out of it—that you cannot separate the wheat from the chaff here.  Bujold herself describes ACC as what happens when you put Regency romance and the science fictional world of Barrayar into a blender and push start.  Miles is who he is because of the world that he grew up in—to pull him and his pursuit of Ekaterin out of that world and isolate them would be like trying to grow a bonsai’d skellytum in my backyard.  The romance in Bujold’s novels is the same way: it grows out of the fictional world she’s built, it’s not there in spite of it.  It’s as much a part of the landscape as the Dendarii mountains, and it’s just as organic to the series.

So yes—A Civil Campaign has romance novel elements in it.  It also has elements of political intrigue, feminist thinking, an examination of gender roles, a consideration of how traditions can be bent toward a more progressive future, and all the elements of a comedy of manners.  But it is still science fiction in the same way that Memory may make use of mystery tropes, but the answer to the puzzles—both the mystery Miles is trying to solve and the mystery of why he pulls one of the most boneheaded moves of all time– is found in the science fictional elements Bujold created.  Without those elements, there’s no sparkle in the diamonds the author’s cut.

This doesn’t mean, incidentally, that I think romance or mystery has no place in these worlds—the absolute opposite is true, in fact, and Bujold herself notes in another Sidelines speech that borrowing those tropes helps place her characters into new and interesting situations.  I think they enhance the worlds created in so many ways, mainly by giving the reader familiar touch points to help them settle into unchartered territory, but also by allowing characters who might otherwise be alien to us to have a handle we can grasp.  They serve as bridges to new, unexplored territories, and there’s no reason you can’t have a mystery or a romance on a foreign world–I’m sure they have problems to solve and people they love just like we do.

To give you another example, Dorothy L. Sayers subtitled her final Peter and Harriet novel, Busman’s Honeymoon, “a love story with detective interruptions.”  But here’s the thing: Peter and Harriet have had a rocky 5 year courtship for a variety of reasons.  When they finally do marry, there are adjustments to be made and they have to make them, to figure out how to live with each other without making the other one a lesser person.  It all starts out as playing houses for them, until a murder interrupts their honeymoon.  And wisely, that’s where Sayers laid her conflict—at the heart of their relationship, their working as a team, their varying attitudes toward their responsibilities for the people involved in the death of a not very likeable man.  Without the mystery, there would be no conflict—they’d just continue to play house.  She uses the genre to get to the very core of her characters, just as Bujold uses her genre to get to the center of all of hers.  But A Civil Campaign is not “A love story with science fiction interruptions” any more than Busman’s Honeymoon is really “a love story with detective interruptions”.   You can’t cherry pick them out of their home genre because that genre is what shapes the romance.

In her Denvention speech, Bujold offers three definitions of genre.  First, it’s “any group of works in close conversation with one another.”  Second, in terms of readers, it’s “a community of taste,” a subject I could probably write paragraphs on but won’t because I’ve already gone on waaaaay too long here.  And lastly, she notes, genre is “a marketing category.”  I agree with all of that.  Again, it’s a handy tool, a way to categorize what we read and to some extent why we read it.  But she also offers a caution, which is what I’m going to end this lengthy screed with, because to me, it perfectly sums up the problems with cherry-picking or trying to cram a book into a category where the fit isn’t quite right:

“The categories are a welcome and necessary convenience, when they aren’t perceived as more than that. But when genre labels in this sense start being used as counters in status games, or become walls dividing readers from books rather than doors leading to them, such labels become toxic.”

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  1. Merrian

    Love, Love, Love this post.

    ACC needs Komarr in order to be the great book it is. Miles in Komarr is the pivot on which the past Miles and the future Miles turn. I love ACC not just as a romance, family & political & social story but as Ekaterin’s story about how the political is always personal and the personal is what matters.

    Also love how your thoughtful analysis applies not only to inter-genre discussions but the intra-romance genre ones going on now.

    • donna

      Thank you. I really think one has to read Memory in order to “get” Komarr, and Komarr in order to “get” ACC. As someone who read those completely out of order, I speak from experience. I read ACC first, I loved it, but I knew I was missing really crucial pieces in both the Miles/Ekaterin romance andthe SFal set up. So it is with some experience that I wrote this 🙂

    • Merrian

      Absolutely agree Miles in Memory is needed in order for Miles in Komarr to have depth and meaning. It is important that Miles is not just the man who falls in love with Ekaterin but the man who is the right man for her; who having redeemed himself can understand Ekaterin’s journey to find herself even as he stuffs things up because he is after all, Miles.

      I have been re-reading Chris Gerwel’s series of posts on Crossroads about romance, UF, PNR and SF and the question of what is SFR. A number of the comments frustrated me but I do think the series is of relevance to your article. I am realising that whenever people talk about using and deploying genre tropes I want to pull my hair out because it begins to feel as if they are discussing genre-paint-by-numbers. yet your words give me hope:

      “….She uses the genre to get to the very core of her characters, just as Bujold uses her genre to get to the center of all of hers….”

      This point you make gets to the heart of what I hope and think should be happening instead. In my clumsily worded comments on Chris’ posts I did try to say that in SFR ….I think we are seeing the exploration of the meaning of connection with the (literal) other and wondered if that meant the purpose of SFR is different to the purpose of SF? I also think that these genre stories are personified narratives of social worlds because romance-centred stories are always about a dialogue with an other which makes them inherently stories about connection and the things arising from that connection.

    • donna

      I am flattered to be mentioned in the same breath as the Crossroads series, so thank you for that.

      I must say, the concept of a genre-paint-by-numbers kit sounds …bleh. That’s how you end up with formula anything, which I find depressing. And yet there is certainly an audience for that kind of book, so when Bujold gets to her “community of similar tastes” comment about what genre is, you can see the logic in that.

      Should SFR’s purpose be different from SF’s? I would hope the purpose of any book is to entertain the person reading it. As a reader, I myself am not all that demanding (despite rumors that my co-blogger may have circulated refuting that 😉 ). All I ask is to be entertained in some fashion.

      Where the problem arises, IMO, is when the SF people start whining about the SFR that’s “polluting” their environment, or that space opera isn’t “real SF” because it’s character-driven, or whatever this week’s complaint is–which, incidentally, nicely loops back to Natalie’s RT post from yesterday. I have also seen readers and writers discount an RT review as somehow unworthy because it has romance cooties somehow, and one of the most horrifying experiences I personally have had is seeing a writer whose work I very much admire repost one of my reviews on his blog–he seemed pretty pleased with what I had to say, but then felt compelled to point out that a sentence from that review that noted that the book wasn’t light reading was, in his opinion, code for “this ain’t no romance novel.” And then allowed his commenters to deride both romance novels and RT. Attitudes like that are not helpful.

  2. rosary

    Nice post. I don’t read Bujold’s series (I know, I know), but it doesn’t matter the series or the novel even–good writing is good writing, and when genre is used as a tool to bash good writing because it doesn’t match someone’s perceived view of the genre–that’s a problem. Michael Chabon has a cool essay in Maps and Legends about short stories, but in some ways it’s also about genre–he points out we read primarily for entertainment, and as long as a writer or genre does that, it has value.

    • donna

      Remind me when your birthday is again 🙂

      Seriously, I think when genre is used as a tool to bash good writing simply because a book is a genre book…*sigh*. You know, I don’t read romance novels–I just never got into them–but you won’t see me running it down as a genre. There’s some excellent work going on in the field. The fact that I’m not interested in it, however, does not mean it has no value. It means I’m not interested. Some people need to learn the difference.

  3. Kaetrin

    I listened to The Sharing Knife series on audio a while back and also Curse of Chalion (and most recently Paladin of Souls). They were my gateway into Bujold. The first Sharing Knife book in particular is very romantic. I read a lot of fantasy back in the day but now I’m almost exclusively romance. But, Bujold’s talent and the excellent narrators she attracts, brings me back to her. I listened to Shards of Honor and Barrayar (which are quite romantic) and loved them so much I decided to listen to all the books in the series (since then I’ve only had time to listen to Falling Free which had only a smidge of romance but which I completely enjoyed). I have the first 2 young Miles books on the TBL and all of the rest on my wishlist. But I go into these books knowing that they are SF with a varying degree of romance. Ultimately, it is the author’s talent (and Grover Gardner’s excellent delivery) which has brought me to this series, even though the romance was the gate through which I stepped.

    • donna

      Well, up front, I have to say before I respond to your excellent comment that I have read neither the Sharing Knife books or the Chalion books. So I can’t really comment on them :). However, I think your point, about how there are varying degrees of romance in the Vorkosigan books, is absolutely correct–and the fact that you go into them knowing that is important. What I’m wondering is if a review of those books that dealt with them almost exclusively as romance and only mentioned the SF world in an “ohbythe way” kind of fashion would be, to someone who reads almost exclusively romance, misleading. I can’t help but think that if I were someone who was not a SF fan picking up a Miles book for the first time because a reviewer raved about it as a romance novel that I might feel mislead at the very least.

    • Kaetrin

      I think it would be misleading to treat a Vorkosigan book only as a romance. I’ve been lucky because the reviews that led me to Shards of Honor were very clear about that. I guess I’d better go back and check my own reviews to see whether I did that. I don’t think I did but I do read through romance coloured glasses so… 😀

      The Curse of Chalion is a great book (excellent on audio too) but it has only a faint romance. The second book, Paladin of Souls is much more romantic but it is a fantasy with a romance in it rather than it being a romance or a fantasy-romance (such as Warprize for example), if you catch my meaning. My romance reading soul was happy but I didn’t go in expecting a genre romance – I have some good friends who went before me and gave me a heads up of what to expect. If I had’ve gone in thinking it was boy meets girl, boy loses girl, kiss and make up, HEA, I would have missed the set up entirely (and that would have been my loss).


  1. Linky would rather be somewhere warmer | Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea - [...] Donna at Radish Reviews on “The Genre Dance”: [...]
  2. Sidelines, Lois McMaster Bujold — Radish Reviews - [...] I mentioned last week, I recently picked up a copy of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Sidelines, her collection of speeches,…


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